A Postcard From Solvang: Our visit to the Tour of California, part I
There’s a balance in stage racing. Long stages are often easier than short. Short stages take a long time when you include all the preparation and waiting and transfers. Flat stages can be harder than mountain stages. Domestiques get to rest when the team leader is going his maximum.
The Solvang time trial of the 2007 Tour of California demonstrated all of the above. It was a short day, but a long transfer. The circuit was simple, but for the favorites every corner and every hill took on great import. Riders who had no stake in the overall wanted to conserve as much as possible, while those with a stake needed to leave everything on the road.
The location also figured in such a split. Solvang is wine country, and tippling—a relaxed pastime if ever there was—is just about the opposite of what’s needed for the favorites to get a good ride during the TT. The scenery is amazing, but if they’re enjoying it, the riders probably aren’t going hard enough. The riders going for it want to be amped, not relaxed.
The course was also a split; a false flat uphill into the wind for the first half, and the converse for the second. A warm sun. A cold wind.
Time trials also allow us to forget about the fact that 127 cyclists are racing. When you read the on-line play-by-play or see the highlights on television, it seems that only the favorites are on course and the rest are on holiday. While the spectators get to see every racer equally, the stories are about but a few.
Team Slipstream seems to fit nicely with the dichotomies of the day. A young team short on top results, but possessing a high profile. They surprise people so much it’s hard to believe it’s still a surprise. They got second in the prologue. They held onto the KoM jersey for a few days. They were in most of the major breakaways. They had the best young rider from last year’s Tour of California. On this day, it was announced that the team scored an invite to Criterium International, one of the hardest spring stage races in Europe.
And the team had several goals for the Friday time trial. Lucas Euser, drained from an all-day breakaway chasing KoM points the day before needed to recover. Taylor Tolleson, a promising sprinter, needed to save his legs for Saturday or Sunday. Will Frischkorn and Patrick McCarty needed to just keep the systems open. Steven Cozza was low on GC but had a green light to rip it up—he went to the world U-23 Time Trial Championships in 2005; he’s a specialist. Jason Donald was going to go for it to see how his body would respond—he used to run steeplechase, so a short prologue effort is something he’s used to. Tom Peterson had GC to think about. Danny Pate had GC on his mind and a deserved rep as a top time trialist to live up to. He had shown flashes of good form all week; this was his kind of day, as the course seemed to favor a larger rider with low drag.
We’re fans of the team. A young team with a management crew that thinks differently about racing, training, and the fight against doping. We followed Craig Lewis at the Tour of Georgia TT last year, and were hoping he’d be in the race here so we could follow him here. Slipstream didn’t bring him this year. In fact, Slipstream is so hot that we couldn’t even get a ride observing the team up close in the TT. We figured the next best thing was to pre-ride the course with a time trial specialist like Pate or an experienced rider like Frischkorn. Plans were made. Plans were cancelled. The timing of breakfast, the stage start, and the transit time conspired against us, and the team opted to skip pre-riding. Frischkorn knew the course well from team and individual training camps in the area—any excuse to drink good wine and eat fine food, particularly in a location conducive to training—and could fill in the team on what to expect. Pate and some of the others had ridden it several times in training camp to get ready for this day; they looked at the course thinking about how to pace it and how to get through the corners safely and fast. Sleep was probably more valuable at this point in the race, anyways.
So we settled for talking with the riders as they relaxed in camp chairs, as they warmed up, and cooled down.
Frischkorn was relaxing in a chair when we pulled up. The veteran on the team is only 26, but has a wealth of experience. As a rider low down on GC, he didn’t have a reason to go super hard in this time trial, or even hard. ‘For this, I’ll sit at 330 watts, at tempo range, systems running. Top guys with my numbers (drag and weight) will run mid-low 400s. They’ll be in the 40s, in kph. I’ll be at 40.’
Warmup is easy. ‘I’ll ride for around 45 minutes, do a sprint or two, and roll. I’ve done more than enough trainer time this winter, and there are some great roads here. I prefer to ride on the roads. You feel better on the road. You go faster, it feels right. Sometimes, there’s no room to warmup and that’s when I use the trainer.’
Frischkorn’s bike is a Felt TT rig, with Oval Concepts TT bars and Blackwell Research 100mm deep front and rear rims. The rear is laced up to a wireless PowerTap. Part of the reason for the rim selection is aerodynamics. Part of it is so they can use the PT hub. Frischkorn prefers the Blackwell setup; he likes the PT data during the ride, and ‘(in) most real world conditions, they’re faster (than a disc).’ What he values about the PT is that it helps stop him from going too hard at the start, giving him a way to measure how he pushes it on hills and eases up a bit going down.
Lucas Euser warmed up with his PT reading nothing—the wireless units work with specific hubs to minimize interference, not that it should matter. He’s also on a compact road frame with an adjustable stem set to slope downwards. Felt doesn’t make a TT bike in his size. Euser was wasted from the previous stage, where he rode the day-long breakaway and sprinted for KoM points, only to flat with 15km remaining and then getting caught on the outskirts of San Luis Obispo, where he went to school and what he calls home. A steady stream of friends, acquaintances and well-wishers were streaming by.
Euser wanted to recover from yesterday, and save his legs for tomorrow. ‘Stay in comfort zone. Try to make the time cut,’ were his goals for the stage. Depending on the outcome of the stage, he could either be given the green light to attack tomorrow or might have to ride in support of Pate and/or Peterson. His warmup is fairly easy. ‘Spin for 25 minutes. Sweat for three to five minutes.’
We catch Frischkorn as he rolls back from the TT. He checks his PT. 331w average. He punched up to 400w at the hill at the midpoint. But settled into a rhythm.
Pate is among the last to start. He rolls in from his warm up ride at the last minute—like Frischkorn, he prefers to ride on the road. He first rode before the transfer in the morning, then after arriving at the start with ninety minutes to spare. And ride, if possible for almost an hour, ‘pull off legwarmers, pull on booties, drink two cokes in a row, and go.’
Before he rolled to the start, he got last-minute advice from Frischkorn, who told him to swap out the deep section Blackwell front wheel for the shallower Shimano wheel. The issue was feeling confident on the twisty tailwind sections racing at 60-70kph. Wanting to hold back would cost time. Crashing even more. The Slipstream follow car was set up with a matching spare bike.
The winning time by Leipheimer netted an average speed of 47.32kph. Discovery and CSC took nine of the top 10 spots. 10th was Ben Jacques-Maynes of Priority Health, the first non-Pro Tour rider, the first domestic-based US pro. The second non Pro-Tour rider was Jacques-Maynes teammate Tom Zirbel. Pate was 30th, but 8th among the domestic-based pros. Frischkorn is mid-pack, while Euser take the lantern rouge on the stage.
Without looking at the downloads or the results, Team Slipstream Coach & world-renowned Power guru Allen Lim had plenty of say about the stage. First, ‘the course is kind of unique, in that there’s essentially a headwind uphill for the first part and then a tailwind downhill for the second. That means that all the time gains or losses should happen in the first half of the course.’ In a situation like this, put everything on the road in the first half and hang on for the second. Pate caught his minute man before the first half was complete, but couldn’t drop him. Donald was caught by his minute man, but couldn’t get dropped, which indicates that the first half was where things mattered. Leipheimer beating Voigt was impressive because this is a course where the bigger rider has a real advantage. As for Pate’s ride, there are two ways to look at it. One is his placing. The other is his power. Lim is more interested in the power, as this is just the start of the season, and ‘I have a lot of faith in what this kid can do.’
Pate has a Landis-style setup to his bars. He has changed his time trial position from last year. It’s a more Mantis-style position, and was developed in the wind tunnel. Lim believes, ‘it will save 60-80 seconds in an hour TT. In this TT, maybe only 30. But it only matters if you’re in the first five or 10.’
Euser finished last, or ‘DFL.’ He makes sure we knew he wasn’t going for it, that his only goal was to make the time cut. He just tried to ride smart. 260-280w, and keep momentum going downhill. From Lim’s coaching and experience, he knows that pushing the pace from 35-40kph is easier than 50-55, so as long as he’s keeping momentum going downhill, he’s fine. In situations like this, he watches his speedometer to make sure he’s pushing harder at the right times and relaxing at others. He might be small for a bike racer, but he claims the wind doesn’t bother him, as the wind always blows when riding at home.
The big story is Pate. No one seems happy with his ride. Moving up one place on GC is not an issue. The 30th and losing two minutes to the leaders is. Even saying he was 8th among the domestic pros is no salve. Lim answers by pausing, and then saying, ‘He can do better.’ Vaughters says his wattage was way below what they know Pate is capable of. He blames it on a bad day and thinks the new position might have been a problem, ‘it’s faster in the wind tunnel, but that doesn’t mean it’s faster on the road. You go by the best information you have and the best anecdotal info and go with what you believe is fastest.’ Pate agrees with the assessments; he should be faster. It’s not a boast, but based on the reams of data and real-world experience he has on his own riding. He chalks it up to being a bad day and not being used to his new TT position.
While the bad result hurt, neither Pate nor Slipstream looked back. They used the opportunity created by being 2:31 down to go on the attack. Pate figured into both the big breakaways on Saturday and Sunday’s stages. In both cases, he got himself up to the breakaway, played a major part in building up the gap, and kept on the pressure until being caught in the final kilometers.
In the balance, the time trial worked out for the fans. Pate gave spectators two great rides that kept the outcome in doubt until the final moments. His teammates were at the ready and Cozza also figured in the final day’s escape. What’s good for the public isn’t necessarily good for the team. The Monday-ride directeurs sportif should be chewing on whether or not Pate could have been top ten or even top five on GC considering what he did in the last two stages. Slipstream certainly earned a ton of exposure throughout the race thanks to their exploits, but they didn’t get the results they hoped for. But they gave the Monday-ride directeurs sportif plenty to argue about, and they didn’t leave empty-handed: Pate did finish with the award of ‘most aggressive rider’ from the voting journalists.